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Idled reactors’ fate holds center stage in nuclear hub Fukui

Verdict on fault holds candidates, hosts hostage

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

On a snowy afternoon just a few days before the general election, local politicians and many residents of Fukui Prefecture were in a state of shock and wondering what the future holds, after a team of nuclear experts declared it is highly likely that a fault under the Tsuruga nuclear plant’s reactor 2 is active.

“We’re heavily reliant on the atomic energy industry for jobs and for the subsidies it brings. What are we going to do if the power stations aren’t reactivated?” asked Ayako Kawamura, 32, a local resident.

She is not alone in posing that question. The prefecture hosts 13 commercial atomic energy reactors, as well as the Monju prototype fast-breeder unit. All are located in the middle and southern parts of the prefecture — the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world.

As well as the Tsuruga plant, Fukui’s nuclear complexes are situated in Mihama, Takahama and Oi, all four of which fall within the prefecture’s No. 3 electoral district. Four candidates are running in Sunday’s Lower House election, but the real race is between Tsuyoshi Takagi, 56, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, and Isao Matsumiya, 68, who is running on the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s ticket.

Also in the mix and hoping to win at least a proportional representation seat is Takashi Tsukamoto, 38, a Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) candidate who is also supported by Your Party. The Japanese Communist Party’s Masahiko Yamamoto completes the lineup.

Prior to the news of a possible active fault running directly beneath reactor 2 at Tsuruga by the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s experts, local media polls showed the LDP’s Takagi leading the pack. In the 2009 general election, which saw a voter turnout rate of about 76 percent, he beat DPJ candidate Matsumiya by around 6,000 ballots.

In addition to the two main opposition parties’ support, Takagi is backed by virtually all atomic energy-related businesses and pronuclear politicians in the district.

But the realization that not only the Tsuruga reactor 2 but also reactor 1, only a few hundred meters away and 42 years old, may now be shut down for good has Takagi’s camp concerned he might be suddenly vulnerable. “We’re never going to say we’re confident of victory. The DPJ candidate (Matsumiya) continues to present a strong challenge,” said Yoshikazu Takenaka, a staffer at Takagi’s campaign office.

Takagi responded to the NRA’s findings by emphasizing that he would push the central government to assist workers at atomic plants who may soon find themselves out of a job.

“We need a policy to maintain employment, even if (Fukui’s) nuclear plants are not restarted. The worst thing to do is to keep everything in limbo,” he said.

Matsumiya, though considered Takagi’s main rival, is surprisingly close to him on the issue of nuclear energy. He agrees with Takagi about the need for an employment policy no matter what the future brings, and like the LDP candidate, he says that he favors restarting reactors if their safety is guaranteed. But given the NRA’s conclusion, Matsumiya, and the local DPJ chapter, have been left wondering about their next move.

Nippon Ishin’s Tsukamoto was also unprepared for the news, but declared himself happy nonetheless, calling it a major turning point for Japan’s nuclear power policy. A last-minute entrant in the race, Tsukamoto’s campaign is based on his party’s platform: eventually getting out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, and providing better child care.

But he has kept something of a low profile. A campaign car driving him around the district has Tsuruga’s name on it, but the recorded message it broadcasts is that of Nippon Ishin founder and deputy leader Toru Hashimoto. Nippon Ishin officials in Osaka say they’ll be happy if Tsukamoto wins a Lower House seat as a proportional representation candidate.

Hashimoto, who also serves as Osaka mayor, visited Tsuruga on Dec. 2 to campaign on Tsukamoto’s behalf. It was his first visit to the prefecture since two reactors at the Oi plant were controversially restarted in July, and many pronuclear residents in Fukui were angered by Hashimoto’s efforts to stop Oi’s reactors 3 and 4 from being put back online.

“To be honest, I hadn’t sufficiently studied the problem,” Hashimoto said in the city of Fukui, as a way of apology. “I want to scrap nuclear power by the 2030s. But we’re in the middle of drawing up a detailed plan to do so, and this process will take two or three more years.”

That is of little comfort to residents in the Fukui No. 3 district, for whom nuclear power has meant jobs, public works projects and income for local service industries since the No. 1 reactor at Tsuruga commenced operations in 1970.

According to a June report by the Bank of Japan’s Fukui branch, around 3,000 people in total are employed locally by Kansai Electric Power Co., which operates 11 reactors in the prefecture, Japan Atomic Power Co., which has the two Tsuruga units, and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which has been trying to complete the Monju unit — the nation’s only fast-breeder reactor — since the 1960s, also in Tsuruga.

Though official data are not available, the bank estimated that another 9,000 jobs are generated by affiliated companies in the vicinity of the power plants, and during inspection periods, an additional 1,000 people are temporarily hired as security guards. The report noted that the local hospitality industry in particular relies on these inspection periods to make money.

In fiscal 2012, 10 cities and towns in Fukui received about ¥20 billion in atomic energy subsidies from the central and prefectural governments. Of this, about ¥19 billion went to the four nuclear hubs in the No. 3 district, accounting for 60 percent of Takahama’s budget, 58 percent of Oi’s, 44 percent of Mihama’s and 19 percent of Tsuruga’s.

Money is also behind two other nuclear-related election issues: what to do about spent-nuclear fuel pools that are rapidly filling up, and what will become of plans to build two new reactors in Tsuruga.

Projections show the spent-fuel pools of Fukui’s reactors will reach maximum capacity within the next five to eight years, if the plants continue to run at the pace seen before the Fukushima meltdowns put the nuclear industry on ice.

In the hope of securing more central government funding for his town, Mihama Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi said earlier this month that he wants to discuss the possibility of building an interim storage facility for spent fuel from not only the local power station but from the Takahama and Oi plants as well.

Mihama officials have been pursuing such a facility since 2004, when the municipality asked Kepco to survey the area. But the utility, citing a request from Fukui’s governor, said it was considering building a storage site outside the prefecture.

Despite a recent Fukui Shimbun poll of local residents showing two-thirds oppose the plan to construct two more units at Tsuruga, candidates in the No. 3 constituency have to contend with local business concerns and must consider the dire implications if the project is scrapped.

A poll by the Tsuruga Chamber of Commerce and Industry last summer of 268 companies indicated construction and manufacturing businesses in particular were pushing hard for the proposed reactors 3 and 4 to be built at the Tsuruga plant, saying the town’s economy will continue to deteriorate otherwise.

LDP candidate Takagi backs moving forward with the project, while the DPJ’s Matsumiya wants further discussions. Tsukamoto of Nippon Ishin is opposed.

But in a district that has relied more heavily than any other in the country on the financial benefits of nuclear power for over four decades, when seismic data argues against restarting a reactor, local residents grow scared.

Whatever their positions, those campaigning in the district must now speak carefully, ever aware that there are many who view the NRA findings not as an opportunity to embrace political change but as a reason to fight it, no matter what the rest of the prefecture, or the rest of the country, may think.